2009 Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200 Review

The flat-track replica finally comes to America


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You patriotic types may feel pretty gutted hearing this, but it seems we’ve our Euro friends to thank for the U.S. being graced with one of the most iconic motorcycles to ever be built. What constitutes an icon? Howz ‘bout the XR750? If that doesn’t say ‘Muhrica, nothing does.

Did the Euros get an XR? Yes and no. What they had built especially for them (but you already know this) was the Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200. What you may not know is that, according to Bill Davidson, VP, Core Customer Marketing for Harley, is that our moto-loving broheims overseas allegedly have a greater passion for naked bikes, in particular, those influenced by American flat-track racing. Also, it seems that most of Europe likes our bikes, as opposed to one county in particular, over there.

Harley capitalizes on its legendary flat-track heritage by releasing a street-oriented replica of the iconic XR750 racebike.

The naked, or standard, means a lot to Europe, more than the U.S. market, if you can believe that. Want proof? Witness the apparent death of Kawasaki’s Z1000 in the U.S. after only one year’s worth of revision? In ’06, the first-gen Z1000 outsold all other sport brands and models combined in Europe according to Kawasaki.  In the U.S. it was more or less a loss-leader, so it was dropped from American dealerships for ’09.

Regardless  of the seeming disdain for practical, sensible, upright-but-sporty unfaired standards in the U.S., Harley heard the uproar in the Letters-to-the-Editor, chat rooms, forum feedback and straight-up complaints from U.S. riders after the XR1200 being a Europe-only model,  and decided it was time to bring the XR1200 home!

It’s baffling that a bike so iconic to American motorcycling would be loved more elsewhere than its home.  A prophet isn’t welcome in his own country…

A breathed-on Sportster motor gives the XR1200 extra grunt over the run-of-the-mill 1200cc Harley.

As you’ve likely read in the past several months, the XR’s mill is largely a 1200 Sporty, albeit with a few refinements.  A couple of crucial updates include precision cooling of the cylinders via oil paths around the exhaust valves, and an airbox and exhaust system optimized for greater intake volume and better flo as well as serving as clear-cut styling links to Harley’s flat-track past (and present!), a higher compression ratio (10:1), and redline increased to 7,000 rpm. It’s all good for a claimed torque figure just shy of 74 ft-lbs at 4,000 rpm and an alleged 90 hp. The XR is down 10 hp to the average Buell XB model, for example, and it also gives up more than 150 pounds in claimed dry weight to the same bike(s).

Other changes that further delineate the XR from your average Sporty while drawing a blazingly obvious parallel to the historic XR750 is a new hollow cast-aluminum swingarm that is rumored to be upwards of 40% stiffer than the typical box-section steel Sportster swingarm, and steering geometry that employs a “split-rake” in order to achieve assertive steering input while at the same time allowing a more relaxed, upright rider triangle.

Additionally, the flat-track imitator rolls on lightweight 3-spoke cast wheels spooned with Dunlop Qualifiers developed specifically for the XR, and a meaty 43mm inverted fork. The fork is unadjustable but offers over five inches of travel. The dual coil-over shocks offer preload adjustment via the classic ramp-style adjuster, and, well, provide that “classic look.” And here’s where Harley got smart with the XR. The Motor Company called on 9-time AMA Grand National Champion and all-around nice guy, Scott Parker, to assist in chassis and handling development.

The dirt-track-inspired XR1200 acquits itself well in the corners.

The fork denies little if any deflection to upset the chassis and do an excellent job of keeping the front glued to the tarmac but, due to its lack of adjustments and race-guy influence, also doesn’t offer much compliance over potholes or sharp-angled bumps. For the XR’s reasonable retail figure that’s marginally more costly than, say, an XB12R, it should have adjustable preload, at a minimum. The Buell’s have fully-adjustable sticks, why not the XR, I say?

Regardless of a sometimes-jolting experience, the combination of quality rubber, lightened rolling inertia courtesy the wheels, 59-inch wheelbase and stout fork, the XR1200 turns in easily and stays on target all the way through your chosen corner arc with stability and confidence.

I noted a few other riders bemoaning some wallow in the chassis, but I experienced little of this. I say this not to brag but to lend credence to my handling notes; I was always running with the quickest of our group, scraping the long peg feelers or right-side exhaust, whichever came first. Speaking of exhaust, note where the inspiration for the performance-tuned headers and mufflers came from. That’s right, the championship-dominating XR750. Peg feelers can be removed for increased lean angle to the left, but I’d suggest leaving the right peg feeler on in order to prevent further scuffage to the exhaust or a highside incident, should you crank the bike over that far.

The XR1200 takes the naked sportbike in a distinctly Harley direction.

Ergonomically the XR1200 strikes a good compromise between aggressive canyon attacker and sensible, upright everyday ride. The reach from the saddle to the wide flat-track-inspired bars is easy, though the seat-to-peg relation may seem a little tight for those over, say, six feet tall. Nevertheless, what appears to be a diminutive and sparsely padded seat is actually a saddle that proved comfortable for well over 60 miles of freeway and surface street slogging.

Also, though clutch pull may make a man out of you at day’s end, the 5-speed tranny works well and shifts easily. And last but definitely not least, the brakes on this Harley-Davidson belie the name on the tank.

The XR1200 impresses for its poise, but it’s the inimitable dirt-track styling and heritage that makes it so desirable.

Never have I ridden a Harley that stops with such force while offering so much feel. H-D teamed up with Nissin again (the company makes calipers for the rest of the Sportster line) in order to come up with an all-new caliper. The dual four-piston pinchers squeeze a set of 292mm rotors with such force that I locked the grippy front Dunlop at one time. These brakes are nothing short of spectacular and should be grasped with caution should you take advantage of an XR1200 demo ride and are expecting the usual Harley brake. This brake set is on-par with the brake systems on any number of Japanese performance-oriented street motorcycles.

This newest Harley, in many ways, is without competition, as no other maker produces a bike similar on a mass scale. Yet, it’s not without a few niggles; a couple of bolts here and there could use hiding or a simple cover of some type, right side ground clearance is limited somewhat by the lower portion of the exhaust headers, and the front suspension should really be adjustable considering the bike’s $10,799 ($11,079 for Orange, and Pewter Denim) admission price. If you want one, the pre-order period ends on December 15, so you’d better hurry to get your hands on the 750 XRs available in 2009.

Still, looking beyond these issues, it’s hard to deny the visceral draw of the XR1200, especially if you like dirt-track racing (and you should!). To this point, Harley’s U.S. communications director, Paul James, noted that during the XR’s weekend-long U.S. unveiling in Long Beach, CA, recently, passions for the XR cut across lines, so to speak. James reports that riders of all brands, or no brand at all, were attracted to theXR1200. “I could see myself on this bike,” said the passers-by and admirers.

I certainly know I wanted to see myself aboard this machine so rich in inspiration and heritage, and I have to say, it was worth the wait.

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